Evidence Based Policy Making – Beliefs and a Book

C-Cat by Becky Zimmerman
A curious thing is happening.  I'm questioning the sanctity of evidence-based policy making (EBPM). Or, perhaps more accurately, I'm questioning a utopian vision of evidence and instead coming round to a view where evidence is more subjective, and the policy making process more complex.  My doubts (noted here, here, here, here and here -- oh, perhaps this isn't such a new thing) are expressed eloquently in Paul Cairney’s new book “The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making.”

Cairney delves into EBPM with the general approach that, “if you want to inject more science into policymaking, you need to know the science of policymaking.” It contrasts the idealistic linear view of researchers, with the chaotic reality of policy making.  Policymaking isn’t a Modrian, it’s a Monet.

The fundamental approach of EBPM is that policy can, and should, be evidence based.  However, Cairney notes this is a problematic start and instead describes EBPM as an aspirational term.  To complicate things, there is no single definition of policy, policymakers or evidence. Cairney suggests the following:
  • Policy – “the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to final outcomes”
  • Policymakers – “the people who make policy” who are either elected or unelected, and either people or organisations
  • Evidence – “an argument or assertion backed by information” broadly
IPKat readers have expressed diverse views of EBPM in IP.  Fortunately for economists (who are the main producers of evidence), and perhaps unfortunately for others, IP policy is a classic example of "punctuated equilibrium theory." Cairney describes this as long periods of stability that are punctuated by profound bursts of instability and change. The development of the global economy and rapid technological change have given us TRIPS and trolls, spurring two decades of IP policy change. Cue the rise of economists in consulting, IP offices and academia (and soon, if not already, in law firms).

For a pure form of EBPM to exist, which he argues it does not, Cairney suggests it would have to meet the following assumptions (I've added in brackets how the assumptions don't fit IP):
  1. The values of society are reflected in the values of policymakers (what are our social values for IP? are they consistent?)
  2. A small number of policymakers control the policy process from its centre (in the UK alone, IP is subject to the UK IPO, EU IPO, EPO, WIPO, border force, police force, the courts...)
  3. We can separate the values, required by policymakers to identify their aims, from the facts produced by organisations to assess the best way to achieve them (research, by lobbyists and academics alike, begins from a certain point of view, separating 'facts' from values is difficult)
  4. An organisation acts optimally by ranking its aims according to its leader's preferences and undertaking a comprehensive search for information (what is the most important IP issue at the moment? how long is it likely to be considered the 'most important'?)
  5. Policy is made in a 'linear' way: policymakers identify their aims, the bureaucracy produces a list of all ways to deliver those aims, and the policymakers selects the best solution (try to describe, for example, the policymaking process of the Unitary Patent as 'linear.')
Cairney carefully and deliberately dispels many EBPM myths. He notes a series of problems which challenge a 'pure' form of EBPM.  A key one is "the lack of reliable or uncontested evidence on the nature of a policy problem," which, in IP, is an on-going challenge. Another issue is, "the tendency of policymakers to decide what they want to do, then seek through evidence, or distort that evidence, to support their decision." A word to the wise on this last point - make sure you know who's making the decision before you point fingers. He also argues that:
  • Even if 'the evidence' exists, it doesn't tell you what to do
  • The demand for evidence does not match the supply
  • Policymakers make choices in a complex policymaking system in which the role of evidence is unclear
As Cairney puts it, "in the real world, the evidence is contested, the policy process contains a large number of influential actors, and scientific evidence is one of many sources of information." I'd described policy making in general as akin to an extended family choosing which film to watch. Uncle Alex campaigns for Barbarella, cousin Vic, holding the remote, decides you’re all watching Hulk until your sister Pat throws a tantrum unless you watch Frozen. You might consult the Rotten Tomatoes rating, but you're convinced that critic from the New York Post is on the payroll of a major studios and the popular rating seems to have been spammed by bots... In the end you watch a Jude Law rom-com. And that’s the simplified version.

Barbarella as a cat
All is not lost, Cairney supports a realistic view of policy making and makes suggestions as to how to pragmatically work within it. This book is handy for those trying to influence EBPM as it lays out strategies and analytical frameworks to understand the policy making process. There are discussions on the hierarchy of evidence, examples from health and the environment, and detailed analysis of theories of the policy process. It is clearly directed at researchers, which I found a bit one-sided at times.  While the book focuses on the bounded rationality of policy makers, it skims over the equally bounded rationality and biases of researchers.

The book's observations will not surprise the good civil servants at national and international IP organisations.  However, it is somewhat jarring to see the process spelled out.  Don't worry EBPM, I'm still a believer.

"The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making," by Paul Cairney, Palsgrave Pivot, 2015 is available for £45 hardcover and £30 e-book. Rupture factor: Low, this pretty little book is just under 140 pages.
Evidence Based Policy Making – Beliefs and a Book Evidence Based Policy Making – Beliefs and a Book Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Thursday, May 19, 2016 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Too much "consultation" is an exercise in policy based evidence - looking for reasons to support a desired policy. And when the evidence does not support the policy, it tends to be discounted. But at least we were asked, right?


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